By Philip O'Connor
(Reuters) - - An anti-homophobia campaign encouraging British soccer players to wear rainbow-colored laces this weekend has run into controversy before the boots are even tied up.
Stonewall, a gay rights charity, joined forces with Irish bookmaker Paddy Power to send the laces to 5,000 footballers around the country.
Premier League champions Manchester United are, according to the BBC, among clubs who have chosen not to wear them while anti-homophobia organization Football v Homophobia (FvH) criticized the initiative.
"It is incongruous to run a campaign aiming to change football culture whilst using language which reinforces the very stereotypes and caricatures that, in the long term, ensure that homophobia persists," FvH said in a statement on Thursday.
The organization said expressions like "Right Behind Gay Footballers" strengthened "stereotypes that ensure homophobia exists".
Power said the lack of openly gay footballers in Britain did not reflect the reality.
"There's 5,000 professional footballers in the UK and none of them are openly gay - statistically, that's almost impossible," Paddy Power told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"UK government statistics suggest that six percent of people are gay, so we worked out that the odds on no footballer being gay are a quadragintillion to one. That's a one with 123 zeros after it - it's a big number, and it's very, very unlikely that there are no gay players."
Power came up with the idea of manufacturing rainbow-colored laces to show support for gay players.
"It's subtle, it's not going to affect any player's performance, it's not like guerilla marketing - it's just a small message of support to show that they don't want homophobia in their game," Power said.
"At the start people, were a little bit worried about putting their hands up, but now there's a groundswell - Joey Barton was the first man to get behind it. Everton's Phil Jagielka has said he will wear them, as will some of his Everton team mates."
Outspoken Queens Park Rangers midfielder Barton has promoted the "Right Behind Gay Footballers" campaign.
"In the 21st century, it's crazy that we're even having this conversation," he said.
"Footballers can show support by putting laces in their boots, and hopefully fans can either put laces in their training shoes and take to the social media sites like Twitter and Facebook."
Despite its global popularity, soccer has seen very few gay players come out, especially during their active careers as the fear of a negative reaction from coaches, team mates and fans forces them to keep their sexuality secret.
Britain's most famous case was that of former Norwich City striker Justin Fashanu, who came out in a tabloid newspaper in 1990 and committed suicide eight years later.
Former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers quit soccer and came out as gay after being released by the Yorkshire club this year.
The American's decision to restart his career at Los Angeles Galaxy prompted the New York Times to dub him "the first openly gay man to participate in a prominent North American pro league" when he made his debut against the Columbus Crew in May.
Power said the success of the campaign would not be assessed by the sudden emergence of a number of gay athletes.
"We wanted to make sure we did it in a sensitive way - the campaign is not about outing people, it's not about getting people to come out," he said. "It's about raising awareness of the issue."
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor in Stockholm, editing by Ed Osmond)